There were more red flags in the system about the underpants bomber than
at a May Day parade in the old Soviet Union.
A State Department spokesman said Monday the embassy in Nigeria sent
multiple cables about Umar Farouk Adulmutallab to the National
Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) after his father went to the embassy in
November to warn of his son's radicalism.
Also Monday, a spokesman for British Prime Minister Gordon Brown
confirmed that MI5 had shared with American intelligence officials a
dossier which included Mr. Abdulmuttalab among Muslims in Britain who
had sought contacts with known extremists.
Yet Mr. Abdulmutallab was permitted to board a Northwest Air Lines
flight in Amsterdam, bound for Detroit. Blunders as big and potentially
catastrophic as this typically result in howls for someone's head.
"Somebody is going to have to pay the price for this," said Andrea
Mitchell of ABC News.
Ms. Mitchell's candidate for the chopping block is Admiral Dennis Blair,
the Director of National Intelligence (DNI). The NCTC, whose job it is
to connect the dots, and then to disseminate warnings to security
agencies, reports directly to him.
A popular candidate is Janet Napolitano, the Secretary of Homeland
Security, as a result of her bizarre assertion on the Sunday talk shows
that "the system worked."
This is not the first time Ms. Napolitano has made a fool of herself.
Shortly after assuming a post for which she had no apparent
qualifications, Ms. Napolitano declared the 9/11 hijackers entered the
U.S. through Canada (they hadn't), and asserted that illegal immigration
isn't a crime. She even banished the word "terrorist" from Homeland
Security's lexicon. Acts like those Mr. Abdulmuttalab tried to
perpetrate were henceforth to be referred to as "man-caused disasters."
To these two candidates could be added Deputy National Security Adviser
John Brennan, the architect of the NCTC system which failed so
miserably, whose appearances on the talk shows last Sunday were nearly
as unnerving as Ms. Napolitano's had been the week before.
But the real culprit may not be these individuals, whatever their
failings (which, in Ms. Napolitano's case, are immense), but Congress.
It is Congress which, after 9/11, created the vast bureaucracies they
head. And it is the bureaucracies more than the individuals who head
them that are responsible for the failures.
The are three fundamental problems with bureaucracy, in ascending order
First, they waste a ton of money.
Second, they diffuse responsibility. By creating layer upon layer of
management, they make it difficult and sometimes impossible to
hold someone accountable. People perform better when they know what
their job is, and when they can be rewarded for success or punished for
Third, they delay action. When the people who do the actual work of the
agency have to go through several layers of management to get permission
to do what it is they do, time and often critical opportunities
But creating or expanding a bureaucracy is Washington's response to
every crisis, despite abundant evidence bureaucracies make the problems
they are supposed to "solve" worse.
The Department of Homeland Security wouldn't work even if it had
somebody competent running it. It's too big, and contains too many
The 9/11 attacks made it clear we needed a much better system of border
control. This meant merging and streamlining the Immigration and
Naturalization Service (which controls the entrance of people into the
country) and the Customs Service (which controls the entrance of
things). But it was a mistake to include the Transportation Security
Administration, and a bigger one to include the Federal Emergency
Management Agency, whose primary responsibility is recovery from natural
The CIA failed to connect pre-9/11 dots in large part because it is
heavily bureaucratized. (Roughly 90 percent of CIA employees work in the
U.S.) The first DNI, John Negroponte, added a bureaucracy of 1,500 on
top of this, a bureaucracy which has now failed even more conspicuously.
Bad ideas such as treating terrorism as a law enforcement problem
can lead to tragedy. So can having people like Janet Napolitano in
critical positions. But bad organizations have consequences, too.